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US Encourages Small, Medium-Sized US Businesses to Help Rebuild Iraq

The United States Commerce Department is encouraging small and medium-sized U.S. companies to participate in rebuilding Iraq. But the Commerce Department advises that doing business in Iraq means taking risks and establishing a presence in the country. Correspondent Jenny Falcon recently joined a group of New York-area business people to hear first-hand about commercial opportunities in Iraq.

The Commerce Department's Iraq Policy Advisor, Susan Hamrock, met with about 50 business people, including representatives of construction, security, law and pharmaceutical packaging firms in New York's downtown financial district.

She told the group that after twenty years of neglect, there are plenty of opportunities for companies in nearly every sector, from agriculture and housing to construction and health.

"Iraq offers fantastic opportunities," she said. "Today's Iraq favors the risk-taker, those with an entrepreneurial spirit who can think outside the box and do not need a perfect road map to follow. If your company can address the challenges, uncertainties and make a long-term commitment, the rewards are there."

Ms. Hamrock offered recommendations, including a detailed discussion of security risks and precautions. She also distributed a list of Web sites to connect the businesses with the Coalition Provisional Authority, government ministries, and reconstruction contractors and sub-contractors to identify potential business opportunities.

The Commerce Department's Iraq advisor urged businesses to get to know the Iraqi culture and to begin working with Iraqis. She says businesses with a presence on the ground have a competitive edge.

"It will not work if decisions and sales calls are made outside of the country. Due to the rapidly changing environment and difficulty in understanding the evolving system and limited communications, it is extremely important to have a presence on the ground if you are interested in doing business in Iraq," she said.

The Commerce Department program is being rolled out at a time when U.S. government contracts for Iraq's reconstruction are under intense scrutiny.

An investigation is currently under way into whether Texas oil company, Halliburton, formally run by Vice President Dick Cheney, overcharged for their work. In addition, nations that opposed the war against Iraq have criticized the United States for excluding them from the bidding process.

Some business-owners and representatives say they also want to know how to participate in Iraq's reconstruction. This includes Harry Doumas, president of international Greek shipping and construction company, Gant Zoulas Technical, which built Iraq's irrigation system twenty years ago.

"We have been trying to get some construction, anything. In general, we can (reconstruct) do airports, roads, ports, anything you can imagine, hospitals. We have done all this and we are ready and willing and able to go there and do it again," he said.

Some smaller businesses say Iraq's infrastructure is not yet strong enough to support doing business in Iraq.

Thomas Belding, managing director of a New Jersey company called Belko, which distributes disposable medical devices to about forty nations, says rather than sending a team to Iraq, his company wants to connect with local distributors.

"I guess the main issue is, is the infrastructure in Iraq developed to the point where we could find a reliable partner or partners for our products?," he asked. "Would we be able to find people who could get financing for those projects, who could pay for the goods in a reasonable way at least through standard international trade route, such as a letter of credit, or other means?"

Rick Makkawy is an Egyptian-American salesman for another local medical supply company. He says he is planning further research on the Iraqi business climate, although he is wary of the risks involved.

"Things are a bit clearer now on how to go, directions were given, so what we have to do is contact these Web sites and individual sub-contractors and see if there is opportunity for our company to join the effort," he said.

Informational sessions on doing business in Iraq have also been held in Boston. Officials have also briefed businesses in Eastern Europe and plan to hold another such meeting in Poland next month.